Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: Michelle Obama's 'American Grown'

The Calm One sweetly gifted me with the American First Lady's book on how her White House vegetable garden came to be.  An engaging presentation by a charming person, the book has huge visual appeal, featuring many photos of the dynamic, smiling, brimming-with-health Michelle Obama working in the White House kitchen garden and out and about in various communities.  The prose is simple and direct, always grounded with her concern regarding the obesity epidemic affecting American children.  The sale proceeds of her book being channelled into her Let's Move campaign--aimed to help American kids get healthy--underscores this focus.

Full title:  American Grown, The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America

She explains her concern began as she realised despite all the Obamas' emphasis on giving their children the best support possible, they somehow did not give healthy food its due.  Identifying this oversight, she goes to the root of the problem which is that the American lifestyle has radically changed from the one which she experienced growing up.  En bref, kids eat empty calories and live very sedentary lives. The First Lady recalled how she ate with her family at home, eating everything on the plate which always included veggies.  Going to restaurants were special treats as was having candy.  She played hard each day and walked to school and the playground.

As returning to the past is not possible, she counsels parents and communities to make connections between food intake, exercise, and health in a dynamic way.  For her, that means involving children in growing vegetables and fruits and encouraging kids to be physically active, and what better way is there than use her very public person as a focal point to inspire and educate?  Her idea for a White House kitchen garden preceded her husband's winning the presidency.  Considering herself fortunate to have parents who made sacrifices which gave her a good start in life, she wants to give back to the community.  Accepting what a daunting task lies ahead, she equally accepts there is no other choice but to take on this grave problem.

As an inexperienced grower of vegetables, she was apprehensive if she could pull off a White House kitchen garden.  She did not even know if it was legally possible as the grounds are a national park or if the soil was suitable or even what the best location would be which turned out to be a place where the garden can be seen from the street because she regards the White House as the people's house.  Once the garden got going with the help of staff and schoolchildren, she started to make important connections between health, eating well, physical work, patience, flexibility, joy, and community.  She comes off as a thoughtful and gracious person in her pulling all these elements together.

Her attempt, however, to draw a historical precedent for actual White House kitchen gardens is uninspiring.  It is almost she does not want to admit how innovative an idea her White House kitchen garden is or how capable she is by actually getting it completed.  I say, well done!  Mentioning the three sisters of Native Americans--planting beans, corn, and squash together--along with the Second World War victory gardens rounds out the narrative.

Starting with 2009 going through 2011, garden plans are listed. Solutions to problems and changes based on learning from mistakes are explained.  The staff involved in the garden are presented and recipes prepared by White House chefs are described.  Various community gardens/outreach programs are given the spotlight.

Bypassing the problem of food corporations selling non-nutritious and fattening foods, she zeros in on how communities can assure the health of their kids by direct action and grass roots organising which includes using My Plate, an improved version of the food pyramid.   She acknowledges that despite parents wanting to feed their kids the best way, not knowing how to do so because of all the complicated and conflicting information leads often to their just giving up.  She admits some Americans have no access to fresh produce in their neighbourhoods, hence the focus on community kitchen gardens.

She provides medical statistics to show clearly how poor diets have made American soldiers subject to all kinds of health problems, especially bone fractures and bad teeth.  Therefore, unhealthy food intake is directly threatening national security.  Additionally she ties in faith groups and the concept of gratitude with a photo of her and a family saying grace together.

Harvested French-grown garlic and potatoes in the background!

As far as gardening information goes, her book does well as an introductory primer--I especially appreciated her year-round focus of growing food--while being visually pleasing, either with/without its jacket, closed/opened, and indoors/outdoors!


Wikipedia:  Epidemiology on Global Obesity